Given the uproar earlier this week when Steve Waldman made a couple of guest posts on Political Animal, when he stated that liberals are “hostile” toward evangelicals (including sideline criticism from fellow ScienceBlogger P.Z. Myers), I thought I’d try to chime in with a somewhat more moderate perspective.
I’m a liberal atheist, but I’m married to a Christian who’s become gradually more liberal over the course of our marriage. Greta’s not an evangelical, though, and I don’t think she has much respect for evangelicals. She’ll say things like “if learning something new could destroy my faith, then what kind of faith do I have?” She’s a scientist, and she loves learning new things; she doesn’t see any conflict at all between her science and her faith. Her attitude about science is pretty much indistinguishable from mine; it’s the faith part that’s different.
If you ask Greta what she thinks of Christians who say things like “Dana Reeve deserved to die because she advocated stem cell research,” Greta would say “they aren’t real Christians.” I, on the other hand, would say they’re ignorant assholes. From a political perspective, Greta’s position would probably get a lot more political mileage than mine. But what would I think if liberal politicians started taking this tactic, essentially saying “my Christianity is better than yours”? I don’t think I’d be happy about it, but I’d probably accept it. It’d certainly be better than the tactic of the Democratic party in the middle of last century of embracing bigoted, racist “Southern Democrats” into their coalition.
Religion can be a powerful motivator, though, and I’ve seen it first-hand. At Greta’s church, hundreds of rich people get together every week and have a preacher tell them that the pursuit of wealth is bad, that they should be doing more to help others, that a life of service is better than a life of greed. These people come back week after week, in their Hummers, their Beamers, their Escalades. It sounds a little hypocritical, but it’s better than the alternative — that they never consider that their lifestyle might be wrong.
Maybe the key for me is that at Greta’s church, I never see anyone other than the preachers pointing the finger at someone else and telling them they’re wrong. And even the preacher is only pointing at the members of his or her own congregation, who come voluntarily every week to have the finger pointed at themselves.
The difference between religion and politics is that people aren’t free to choose their government the same way they pick a church. If a politician points the finger at us and tells us we’re doing the wrong thing, we can’t just stay home from America the way we might stay home from church one Sunday. Churches can get away with such in-your-face moralism precisely because we have freedom of religion.
So, the evangelicals cry, if liberals are so high-and-mighty about freedom of religion, why can’t we have prayer in schools? My liberal atheist reaction is this: “because I don’t want your bullshit crammed down my kids’ throats.” Greta’s response would be this: “because as a Presbyterian, I have a particular way I want my kids to pray, and I show them that at church. Freedom of religion is about me choosing where and when to pray, not someone else telling me to do it.” Again, Greta would probably win more votes.
So, are liberals “hostile” toward evangelicals? I think if George Bush was making the liberal case, he’d say “we’re not hostile, we’re liberators! We’re for freedom!” I think I’d phrase it a little more accurately. I’d say a liberal should be hostile toward anyone who’s opposed to freedom of religion, which includes a hell of a lot of evangelicals. If you want to impose your religion on America, then you’re unamerican. I’m not religious, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think religion has the potential to do some good, so I’m opposed to any government imposition or repression of religion. And if that means liberals don’t get elected this year, or next year, or next decade, so be it. That’s where liberals need to draw the line. Somehow I don’t think a lot of evangelicals will be crossing it.